The History of Norwegian

Heidi Hval
Ling 450 sec 001
Cynthia Hallen

Norwegian is a relatively small language with about 4.5 million speakers, but it has a rich history, which leads to the unique language situation in Norway today. Norwegian actually has two official written languages, which takes a variety of dialects into consideration. As always language and history are closely linked, and to understand the situation today we have to look back in time. Norwegian is part of the North Germanic branch of Indo-European, and became an individual language at the beginning of the Viking era. The Viking literature is thus often looked upon with pride, Norway had power and a rich cultural life. Following this era came the dark centuries of different unions with Sweden and Denmark in which the Norwegian written language got completely lost. The spoken dialects, however, was kept, and after Norway’s independence from Denmark in 1814 the question of a new written language arose. This became a big political issue and resulted in two written norms, one resembling Danish and one created on the basis of the rural dialects. This is the source of the two written norms we have today, and the issue still receives a lot of political attention.

Indo European – Germanic

Norwegian belongs to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic language group, which is one of the ten subgroups of Indo-European (McMahon 3). In North Germanic we find Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese, which are all closely related to West Germanic, i.e. English, German, Frisian, Dutch and Afrikaans. The third branch of Germanic is East Germanic, in which the extinct Gothic is the most important language (Johnsen 22). The Germanic branch of the Indo European family tree looks like this:

(McMahon 3)

Around 200 BC, Indo-European in North Europe went through certain language changes and Germanic became a dialect of Indo-European often called Proto-Germanic. The sounds /p/, /t/, and /k/ in Indo-European became /f/, /þ/ (pronounced like th- in English thing), and /h/ in Germanic in word-initial position. In other cases /b/, /d/, and /g/ became /p/, /t/, and /k/ (Johnsen 24). These changes are named the First Germanic Consonant Shift, also known as Grimm’s law (McMahon 18). Another change that took place was the Germanic Accent shift, which placed the stress on the first syllable of the stem (McMahon 14). All the Germanic languages developed from Proto-Germanic (or Urgermansk in Norwegian), which has been reconstructed in the same way as Indo-European (Johnsen 24). During the first two centuries AD North Germanic separated from Proto-Germanic, as did West- and East-Germanic.

Urnordisk (Proto–Norse) 200-500 AD

Urnordisk, which was spoken in what is now Norway, Sweden and Denmark, is the first North Germanic language of which we have written records. However, these written records are scarce, they are limited to borrowed words in Finnish and Lapp, names and runic inscriptions. The words borrowed into Finnish and Lapp from Urnordisk did not change as Urnordisk did; they were kept in their original form. There are about 400 of them in Finnish. For example, the Finnish word for king is kuningas, from konungaR in Urnordisk (Johnsen 26).

The runic inscriptions must be interpreted with great care, taking into consideration that we are not sure of the origin of the underlying spelling tradition (Syrett 17). The runic alphabet probably came into use in the first century AD, developing from the old Greek and Latin alphabets. Some scholars also trace the alphabet back to the Etruscan or North Italian alphabets (Gordon 181). The first runic alphabet, which was probably shared between all the Germanic languages, had 24 characters. It is named "the elder fuþark" after the first six characters (Johnsen 26). The characters of the elder fuþark are made up of straight lines, due to the technique used when making wood-inscriptions. Time has erased all of these, but inscriptions were also made in rocks, jewelry, weapons, and coins. We have about 150 runic inscriptions from Urnordisk time. One of the first inscriptions was found in Øvre Stabu, Oppland, Norway from about 150A.D, reading raunija, "the one who tries". The word comes from raun (= (a) try) and reyna (= to try). The elder fuþark worked well with the language; each sound had its character. (Johnsen 26).

Urnordisk to Norrønt (Old Norse)

In the time period 500-700 AD, Urnordisk went through several interesting changes, almost a language revolution. Most important are the Umlauts, also called mutations, in which unstressed end vowels influenced the stressed root syllable. The Umlauts were named after the influencing vowel, and there are three types: a-, i- and u-Umlaut (Johnsen 30).

A-Umlaut was caused by the unstressed a, and caused the u in the previous syllable to be lowered to o and i to e. For example, hurna changed to horna (Johnsen 31). If j or n + consonant came between the vowels the first vowel was protected against the influence of the following a. For example, sumar did not change (Gordon 271).

I-Umlaut, also called Front Mutation, occurred when certain front sounds influenced the preceding syllable, causing it to raise. The earliest of the Front Mutations were the raising of e to i when followed by syllables containing i or j (Gordon 271). Later all back vowels and diphthongs were affected when followed by syllables containing -i- or -j-, and were fronted accordingly (Gordon 271). The I-Umlaut was the one affecting most words. Try for example to say bókir and push your tongue forwards while saying -o-. Exactly, the sound becomes an -ø- (Johnsen 32). That’s how it works!

The youngest of the Umlauts is the U-Umlaut. The changes were caused by a u in an unstressed syllable, most of the time influencing a preceding a. The u caused the a to be pronounced with rounded lips. The new sound, written o, was probably pronounced like English port and yacht, an open å-sound we no longer have in Norwegian (Johnsen 33).

Two changes from this period that affected the language greatly were syncope and apocope. Syncope involved the deletion of unaccented vowels, especially the short ones. If the vowel was word-final the change was called apocope. For example, horna became horn.

This made the words shorter than what they had been in Urnordisk. People who before this period of change had the name StainawarijaR would later be named by Stainarr. My dad’s name is Harald (equivalent to the English Harold), and his name changed from HarjawaldaR to Haraldr during the syncope-period (Johnsen 33).

Because of the syncope new consonants would influence each other, a change also known as assimilation. This kind of assimilation was more common in Old Norse than in the other Germanic languages. One of the reasons for this was consonant clusters that were difficult to pronounce, left after the syncope (Gordon 282).

Old Norse: The Viking Language

The Viking period lasted from about 750 to 1050, and in this period Old Norse remained largely unchanged. Due to the Vikings and their extensive travelling, the language received loan words from Celtic and West Germanic Anglosaxon. Around the year 700, a new runic alphabet came about, called "the younger fuþark", which had only 16 characters. The decrease in characters caused the close relationship between sound and character to be lost; now each character could represent several sounds (Johnsen 36). The Norse sagas, skaldic poems and the Eddas were written in Old Norse, and they reflect the language at the time they were from. Even though the skaldic poems from the earlier periods around 800 were not written down before 1200, strict rules for oral traditions preserved them from change (Faulkes xiii).

During the syncope period we saw the first distinction between east and west in the Nordic countries, and with the Vikings the first sign of dialects showed up. For example, a-Umlaut was stronger in the west (Jylland, West-Norway) than in the East (Sweden, East-Denmark). In the east, diphthongs got lost, while they were kept in the west. Assimilation of n- and m- is also a typical change that happened mainly in the west. There are now two main dialects; Old Danish and Old Swedish on one side, and Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic on the other. Old Norse is often used as a common term for the language in Norway on Iceland from about 700 to 1350, but usually a line is drawn around 1050, which was when the written language started influencing the way language was used (Johnson 37).

Old Norwegian

Around 1050 the era of the Vikings was over, and Christianity arrived. With Christianity the Latin alphabet was introduced, and co-existed with the younger fuþark for about 300 years. A rich literary tradition was established, and the oral traditions of old were written down. The poet and politician Snorri Sturluson of Iceland wrote some of the most important literature of the time, and he had close connections to Norway through the Norwegian king. Sturluson probably wrote some of the Norwegian literature while Iceland was under the Norwegian throne. There is good evidence he is the author of Heimskringla, a saga of the kings of Norway until 1177 (Faulkes xiii). Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic remained very similar, but in the thirteenth century dialects within Norwegian itself started to appear. West Norwegian had more in common with Old Icelandic, while East Norwegian picked up features from Old Swedish (Gordon 319).

Middle Norwegian

The time period called Middle Norwegian is usually decided upon on the basis of political happenings. The period begins with the Bubonic Plague and ends with the end of the Kalmar union and the Reformation. After the Plague, Norway had lost most of its literate people, and also its identity as a national state. Norway had been in union with Sweden from 1319 to 1343, and a new union was formed in 1387 with Denmark. Sweden joined in 1397, creating the Kalmar Union. Formally Norway had the same status as Denmark and Sweden, but in reality is was less. By 1550 Sweden had become independent, but because of Norway’s weak status in the union it remained part of Denmark (Vikør Norwegian).

The most important written materials from this period are official documents from the king, private letters and business letters. In the beginning of the period the Old Norwegian written language was mixed with Swedish, German, and Danish, but gradually Danish became the most prominent (Johnsen 46).

Union with Denmark

Typical for this time period is a Norwegian that only exists as spoken language. As the Danish got more power Danish became the official written language. Norwegian forms of writing persisted for a while, but around 1525 the replacement was almost complete (Vikør Norwegian). The last known text written in Norwegian dates from 1538 (Johnson 56). The Lutheran Reformation in 1536 proposed that the national language was to be used as the ecclesiastical language, and since Norway was under Denmark, Danish took on this role. Christian III’s Danish Bible was used in church services and was also considered a norm for the written language; there was no Norwegian translation of the Bible until modern times. After 1536 the only Norwegian texts still in use were old law texts dating from the thirteenth century, which all were translated into Danish by around 1600 (Johnsen 56).

Danish continued to be the official written language up to the second half of the nineteenth century, even though Norway became independent in 1814. Norwegian dialects were still spoken, but the upper class in the cities had slowly adopted a Danish-based spoken language. This upper class dialect was actually based on spelling pronunciation of Danish, which phonetically was North Scandinavian. Since Danish orthography was very conservative the new spoken dialect was closer to medieval than to spoken Danish (Vikør Norwegian).

The Romantic Movement

After Norway became independent from Denmark in 1814, the Norwegians had to make a decision about the language situation. This marked the start of a period of language disagreements that has lasted up till today. Norway remained in a personal union with Sweden until 1905, but this had no language political consequences. There were two options: either to create a completely new spelling and grammar based on the different Norwegian dialects or to gradually change the Danish written language to make it closer to the spoken Norwegian. At this time the Romantic Movement was strong in Scandinavia, and the connection between a nation and its language was widely recognized (Vikør Norwegian).

The self-taught linguist Ivar Aasen traveled around southern Norway for more than four years, collecting information about the different rural dialects. He wanted to find the roots of the Norwegian language, to base a new written language on the dialects that had developed directly from Old Norwegian (Johnson 72). He wrote a dictionary and a grammar (1964) based on his research, with the help of methods developed by Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm (Vikør Norwegian). These writings were purely scientific, describing what he had found. Later he developed a written language taking all the dialects into consideration, and he named it Landsmaalet (The Country language). In 1853 Aasen proposed a language reformation, later called Aasen-normalen (The Aasen-norm) (Johnsen 77).

The other option was to take the Danish spelling and grammar to bring it closer to the upper class Norwegian that already was based on Danish pronunciation. This would be a less dramatic change, but taking into consideration Norway’s newfound independence it was a controversial issue. The teacher Knut Knudsen suggested a new norm called "Dano-Norwegian", which later got the name riksmål (Vikør Norwegian).

At this time in history language was both a cultural and a political issue. Poets and writers were involved in the language politics, and the romantic ideas of this cultural period gave Aasen’s proposal an advantage. From about 1880 the discussion intensified, as did the political issues about parliamentarism and the union with Sweden. The new radical parliament acknowledged Aasens Landsmaal as an alternative to riksmål in 1885 (Vikør Nynorsk). Landsmaal had become popular in the countryside, and in 1892 it could be chosen instead of riksmål as the first language in schools (Vikør Norwegian).

New definitions: Nynorsk and bokmål

The terms Nynorsk and bokmål came into use in 1929, before then the official terms were landsmål and riksmål. Landsmål referred to Aasen’s norm, while riksmål was the name of Knudsen’s language. By 1920 Nynorsk had been integrated in the schools of western Norway and the interior mountain valleys, the so-called core-area. Outside of the schools the 1885 resolution about acknowledging Nynorsk had little affect, it was interpreted to mean that Nynorsk should be "tolerated" in official contexts (Vikør Nynorsk).

At this time Knudsen’s riksmål gradually came closer to educated speech of the urban society, and two spelling reforms, in1907 and 1917, made this formal. This is considered to be the first definite distinction between Danish and Norwegian, and the first translation from Bokmål into Danish was done in 1913. The 1907-reform changed the grammar to what was used in spoken Norwegian, and it also changed the spelling in the direction of what was spoken. The principal separation of Bokmål from Danish is thus considered to be 1907 (Johnsen 96).


Before the reforms the language discussion dealt mainly with the Bokmål-Nynorsk issue. Bokmål was the major written language, but since the core-area had started using Nynorsk in schools it remained a big political question. The linguistic difference between the two was rather small, which lead to the idea of bringing them closer together. The goal was to make one written language called Common Norwegian (Samnorsk) (Vikør Norwegian). The idea was grounded in the fact that the dialects of the areas with the biggest population, the southeast, had linguistic features in common with both the written standards. The 1917 reform aimed at bringing the two standards closer together, using the eastern dialects as a basis (Johnsen 104). In 1938 there was a new reform, also in the direction of Common Norwegian. It adjusted the 1917-reform and made many of the optional forms in Bokmål main forms. By this Bokmål changed from reflecting the upper class to having a broader social appeal (Johnsen 122).

Death to Common Norwegian

After World War II the mood changed. One of the reasons was the link between Nynorsk and nationality, which at the time after Hitler did not bring about any good feelings (Johnsen 123). People in the Bokmål movement started working against the convergence. Nynorsk was still used as an instructional language in the western Norway, and had a strong position. This lead to the official death of Common Norwegian in the 1960s (Vikør Norwegian). The Norwegian Language Council appeared in the 70s to bring settlements in language disagreements, and in 1981 a new reform came about bringing Bokmål back to a more conservative form.

Nynorsk today

From 1915 the preferred language of instruction has been decided by local referendum, and this is still how it works today. About 17% of all school children use Nynorsk as their first written language, the rest Bokmål. The core-area resists the increasing use of Bokmål, arguing that Nynorsk is a symbol of identity and regional pride. From eigth grade on, both varieties are compulsory for all school children, with one of them chosen as the main language (Vikør Nynorsk).

A law was passed in 1930 stating that officials were to use both varieties after directions from the government, and this led to a strengthening of Nynorsk. In 1980 a new law based on the 1930-law was passed, the Act relating to Language Use in the Civil Service. The first paragraph states: "Bokmål and Nynorsk are equal language varieties and shall be regarded equally as written languages in all governmental bodies at the national, provincial and municipal level." No form shall be used less than 25% of the time, and this applies to each State Agency independently (Norwegian Language Council). Despite this law the position of Nynorsk in official use remains weak.

In the core area Nynorsk is used both formally and informally, and the local dialects are linguistically close to Nynorsk. Many newspapers in this area use Nynorsk, but there is only one daily paper using this variety. Bokmål still has the majority of users, and oftentimes this majority seems to run over the Nynorsk-users. Among the people preferring Bokmål there is often a negative attitude towards Nynorsk, which might be grounded in the compulsory second variety in school. The dialect of most Bokmål-users is very different from Nynorsk, which makes it difficult to learn. This again, having problems learning your own language leads to a lot of confusion and negative feelings. There are also a lot of prejudices about Nynorsk-users being shallow countryside people, an attitude probably dating all the way back to when the cultural elite preferred riksmål.

Where do we go from here?

It is easy to forget that Bokmål and Nynorsk are similar in a lot of ways, even though they are two distinct written languages. Every Norwegian who uses Bokmål understands Nynorsk and vice versa. So then, what is the problem? Why can’t we make only one language? As always when dealing with language there are a lot of issues that must be taken into consideration. Language is a way of expressing your identity; it is a way of showing other people who you are. Even though the two forms are linguistically similar there are different "flavors" to them. For example, a lot of poets prefer to write in Nynorsk. Both dialects are unique, and trying to adopt the other form will give you the feeling of losing something of yourself. This can be compared to being forced to use a second language; you can learn it, but it can never take the place of your native language.

This is still a controversial issue in Norway, and it is a very sensitive topic. The political left has support for wanting to keep the two forms equal, but it is getting increasingly difficult. The media tends to use Bokmål, and it is becoming more difficult to find schoolbooks in both forms. I believe the two forms can exist side by side if we only show mutual respect for each other, and maybe then we can take advantage of the diversity this adds to our language. Ideally this is how I think it should be, but as a Bokmål-user I have to admit that when I think about my Nynorsk-exams in high school I get a nauseous feeling…

Works Cited

Gordon, E.V. An Introduction to Old Norse. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Johnsen, Egil Børre. Vårt eget språk. Bind 1. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1988.

Kulturdepartementet. Statistisk sentralbyrå. (1997) Online. Statistisk sentralbyrå. Internet.

20 Feb. 1998. Available:

Lilletun, Jon. Krev jamstelling mellom bokmål og nynorsk. (1997) Online. Kristelig

Folkeparti. 20 Feb. 1998. Internet. Available:

McMahon, April M.S. Understanding Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1994.

Norwegian Language Council. Language Usage in Norway’s Civil Service. (1994) Online.

Internet. 20 Feb. 1998. Available:

Ross, Margaret Clunies. Skáldskaparmál. Denmark: Odense University Press, 1987.

Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Syrett, Martin. The Unaccented Vowels of Proto-Norse. Denmark: Odense University Press,


Vikør, Lars S. Norwegian. (1993) Online. Novus Forlag. Internet. 20 Feb. 1998.


Vikør, Lars S. Nynorsk in Norway. (1993) Online. Novus Forlag. Internet. 20 Feb. 1998.


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Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999